I’ve just realized that 2009 represents the twentieth anniversary of my graduation from high school, and my entrance into college. It was in 1989 that I formed dual obsessions with Richard Bach and Sergei Rachmaninov; it was in 1989 that I went on my first date (I must have not been a very good time, since my two or three subsequent attempts for a follow-up were met with the all-purpose excuse, “Uh, I’m busy that night”); it was in 1989 that I got my first paying job (in the library at St. Bonaventure University). But none of that is what interests me at this moment. I was thinking the other day about Christmas presents I got as a kid, up to the end of high school, and I remembered the big gift from my senior year, Christmas 1988: my first CD player.
It was a boom-box affair, made by Sharp Electronics. It had a dual tape deck, too, and that got a lot of mileage over the next few years as my main musical medium at that time was still the cassette. I did have quite a bit of classical and film music on vinyl, but I would almost always use my parents’ big stereo system to tape the records so I wouldn’t have to play them very often. Even though I fell in love with the compact disc, it would take a number of years for the CD to take over the prime place in my music collection, much less become the only thing in my music collection. (A process which has now reached an end in itself, but more on that later.)
I’ve never been much of an audiophile, although there are some things I do admit. I’ve owned the scores to the Star Wars movies on all of the major formats, and never have the cassettes, CDs, or MP3’s sounded as good as the vinyl records I played to death as a kid. And when I say I played those records to death, I mean, I played them to death. By the time I finally stopped playing them, the characteristic pops and scratches anyone who’s ever been around vinyl for long will remember were so engrained in my brain, in certain places, that to this very day if I listen to those scores on flawless MP3, my mind still fills in the worn-vinyl pops. I also admit that Super Audio CDs do sound better than the standard article, but they’re not so great an improvement that I feel it necessary to invest in them. For the life of me, I think in most cases MP3’s sound just fine, if it’s a good bitrate (at least 192 kbps). The greatest moment of audiophilic revelation in my life came the first time I put a CD in the new CD player and heard a work of music I knew very well…but without any tape hiss.
Anyone who remembers cassettes will remember tape hiss. You’d stick a cassette in the deck, hit play, and the room would fill with this white-noise hissing sound that never, ever went away. Over time you learned to filter it out of your perception of the music, although occasionally you’d get a recording that was made on a cheap cassette and the hiss would be significantly worse. I learned, as did lots of the other music-heads in my age-group, that one could tell how bad the tape hiss would be simply by looking at the tape itself. If the tape was dark brown, dark gray, or even black, you knew you had a quality cassette and the hiss would therefore be less bad. If, on the other hand, the tape was light brown, the color of coffee once you’ve added a lot of creamer, or worse, if the tape actually matched your khaki pants, you knew that the hiss was going to be bad. And lo, it was. But that was how it went, back then: if you wanted your music portable, you had to learn to live with a constant Sssssssssss in the background.
Until the CD came along, and hiss went away.
When my parents bought the CD player for me – it was a preordained gift that I knew was coming, although they did surprise me by getting the fancier, higher quality system than the one I thought they were getting – they also bought the first two discs, since obviously it would have been lame to have a new CD player with nothing to play on it. They had let me pick the discs, and I still own them. Here they are:
In fact, as I write this, I am listening to that very recording of Eine Alpensinfonie. If you’re unfamiliar with this work, it starts off very quietly, with a slow, mysterious figure that descends down the minor scale in the lower strings and winds. I remember putting that disc in the player, pressing play, seeing the disc through the little window start whirling around, and I remember thinking, “When does the music start?” My brain was still expecting to hear tape-hiss preceding the actual music! Instead, I heard nothing at all, until the orchestra started in those opening bars. I couldn’t believe how the thing sounded…and then, a few minutes in when the entire orchestra blazes forth with the motif for Sunrise Over The Mountain (the piece is a musical telling of a day’s climb up, and back down, a single Alp), I thought the paint was going to come off our walls. (Or might have, if we’d had paint back then. We had really ugly faux-wood paneling that my parents would have ripped out a few years later.) The disc still sounds fine. I guess I’ve stored it well over the years.
So, that’s where it began for me, my love affair with the compact disc. There were some odd things about CDs in those early days, weren’t there? Take that Alpensinfonie disc, for instance. That work is roughly fifty minutes long and is comprised of twenty-two distinct sections, even though all are played without break. Every CD I’ve ever seen of the Alpensinfonie, and I own three myself, has separate tracks for each section of the work, except this, my first one. Here, the entire work is in a single track. One CD, one fifty-minute long track.
I also recall CD packaging back in those early days, when they came in these long packages. Some were cardboard, others clamshell plastic, but the CD would be in the jewel box at the bottom, and the booklet would be at the top, outside the jewel box. So you’d have to cut open the plastic package, hoping not to damage the booklet in the process. Also, some music stores were routinely dark places with lots of floodlights illuminating the merchandise from track fixtures above the racks. This was OK when you were thumbing through vinyl record sleeves, but when you’d pull a CD in the plastic clamshell thing out to look at it, and the disc itself would be visible because the booklet wasn’t in the jewel box already, if you got the angle wrong, you’d blind yourself with the reflection of the floodlight off the surface of the disc itself. And I remember how multi-disc sets for some reason always stuck a square of yellow foam in the cases, between the discs. That was ridiculous, and I think I recall reading somewhere that it turned out that those squares of yellow foam weren’t good for the surfaces of the discs themselves, so I threw the foam out of all my opera recordings.
The music department at my college had an already-impressive collection of CDs when I got there, but you weren’t allowed to take them back to the dorm room, because they were afraid that students would just take them home and tape the music off the discs. Well, I’d say that’s not much of an issue now, is it?
Twenty years later, I don’t buy nearly as many CDs as I used to. I’ve reached a certain saturation point, in terms of music; I already own more music than I have reasonable time to listen to. Plus, the CD is still, in general, too expensive, a fact that record companies still seem to refuse to acknowledge. Just last week I was in a Barnes&Noble, looking through the classical music section, and there was, for example, the umpteenth-reissue of Charles Munch conducting the Boston Symphony in Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, and it was the full eighteen bucks. That’s ridiculous. The budget Naxos label seems to have gone up a few bucks in the last few years, too; when I first discovered Naxos their typical CD was eight bucks, and now it’s ten. Still not bad, but eight’s less than ten. (It doesn’t help that at some point, Borders and B&N both stopped the once-helpful, but possibly not retail-wise, practice of keeping all of the Naxos discs separate from the other labels.) This isn’t unlike the longtime problem I’ve had with publishers of graphic novels: how much spontaneous exploration of their offerings can those companies expect of people when a single graphic novel is almost always more than twenty bucks?
I’ve also reached the point where CD storage is a big issue. My collection doesn’t take up the most room in the world, but The Wife and I have lately reached the conclusion that our apartment is filled with too much stuff, leaving not enough space. To that end, I intend to gradually replace every CD jewel box in my collection (to a point) with these sleeves. Doing so should allow me to get rid of at least two pieces of cruddy furniture that I use to store the bloody things now.
Do I download music? I do, although not a whole lot yet. I know this will change in the future as downloading becomes more and more prevalent. I’m not wild about my music collection owing its existence to the vagaries of a hard drive’s functionality – there’s no way my current hard drives will still be going strong in twenty years, unlike Maestro Karajan’s old disc of Eine Alpensinfonie – but that’s just the way it’s going to be, so I’ll have to do lots of backing up, I suppose.
But anyway, it’s been a good two decades with the shiny silver discs. They’ve brought me immense pleasure over the years, and I see no reason to let them stop. Viva la CD!